As a teenager who was pushed into reading Jane Eyre by a wise librarian, I was surprised to be entranced by the strong heroine of Charlotte Brontë's story. Then I read Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë. Standing on the windy hilltop at our farm, I felt some kinship with the passion of Kathy as she looked across the moor.
I had my own ambition to write, so the Brontë sisters interested me as much as the fictional heroines they created. I even read a biography during study hall for I, too, had sisters, a family that valued books and stories, and my own experience of tragedy. But there were no more Brontë books in our rural library, so before long I moved on to the next author Miss Keeney recommended: H. G. Wells.
I didn't give the Brontës much more thought until a couple of years ago, when I read a moody, fact-based novel about the family: Brontë by Glyn Hughes. Though the story was speculative, it was completely engaging, and my more mature interest was again ignited. But my sense of the Brontë family reality was still thin, as was made clear to me in reading The Brontës at Haworth by Ann Dinsdale, recently out in a beautiful paperback edition.
For a visitor to Haworth Parsonage, such as I might be if given the opportunity, a visitor drawn to the Yorkshire moors by the passionate writing of one of the Brontë sisters who used to live there, Dinsdale's book would be just the souvenir to take home. It seems to have been created with that intent.
This is not a book of history, biography, or literary critique. It has the visual appeal of a coffee table book, and, with no subject section that is more than five or six pages long, it is easy to browse. Nonetheless, it gave me a greater sense of place, a larger understanding of source material, and a more factual glimpse into the brief lives of these gifted and troubled sisters. Gorgeous, if romantic, the photographs by Simon Warner convey something of the mood and clime of Yorkshire as it might have been for the Brontës, and kept me turning pages for more. The book is enriched still further with etchings, paintings, and other interesting bits of illustration connected to the family story. It is a fascinating scrapbook.
Yet there's more to it than pictures. As librarian at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, and having "a particular interest in social conditions," Ann Dinsdale offers a start on the cultural and literary context of the Brontës' lives and works. In addition to a helpful chronology, she provides a biographical sketch of each family member. There is also publication information and discussion of critical reception for each published work. With enough personal and social history to answer a few questions, and maybe stimulate a few more, in this rather brief format in a very properly British tone, yet with a strong sense of history and of irony, the author manages to convey something of the remarkable nature of the Brontë family. For those of us who can't make it to Haworth, Ann Dinsdale's book is a good substitute for a visit.
An expert on all things Brontë, writer and lecturer Ann Dinsdale is librarian at the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, West Yorkshire. She has authored a number of books and educational materials related to the Brontës. Her partner in this book is Simon Warner, a widely published photographer of the British landscape and the author of Discovering West Yorkshire. Read more on the Brontë Parsonage blog.
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